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Q. Dear Umbra,

My boyfriend owns a building in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, and one of his tenants has a clothesline out the back window.  Other tenants are complaining.  Are clotheslines legal in Brooklyn? I have searched online and cannot get a definitive answer.  Would love your help, thank you!

Madeline A.
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Laundry hanging in Queens.
Laundry hanging in Queens.
Chris Goldberg

A. Dearest Madeline,

People are complaining about clotheslines in Brooklyn? What’s next, lamenting that there are too many cowboy hats in Dallas, or too many cows in Vermont? I know Brooklyn has experienced some serious gentrification in recent years, but it strikes me as a wee bit unrealistic for your boyfriend’s tenants to think life in Bensonhurst or any other urban neighborhood would be uncluttered by other people’s realities — and yes, that includes their underwear.

As far as I can tell, and as decades of photographs seem to indicate (including those collected for an exhibit celebrating the role of clotheslines in the city), these items are such a part of life in New York that no one has ever thought to regulate them. Just to be sure, I did some digging on your behalf.

Spurred by a piece in The New York Times asserting that clotheslines aren’t mentioned in the city’s legal guidelines for dwellings, I checked with a representative of one of the city’s housing departments, who confirmed that they are not addressed in the Housing and Maintenance Code. They also do not merit a mention in the state attorney general’s booklet on tenants’ rights [PDF]. And the passionate air-dryers at Project Laundry List, whose work we’ve reported on previously, say they do not know of any such regulations in any of the five boroughs.

Which is to say, if clotheslines are illegal in Brooklyn, residents have been breaking the law for decades. Centuries, maybe. Here is one sweet reminiscence about growing up in 1940s Brooklyn and using the clothesline for, among other things, trading comic books with friends. Bonus trivia: Did you know Neil Armstrong referred to the ropes and pulleys that he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin used on the moon as a “Brooklyn clothesline“? It was apparently catchier than the real term, Lunar Equipment Conveyor.

A time-honored tradition.
A time-honored tradition.
Museum of the City of New York

We should consider clotheslines just one of the many things our forebears did right. Why? For starters, your clothes last longer if you air dry them instead of using a dryer. Clotheslines also save money and energy: Dryers are among our most energy-sucking household appliances, second only to the refrigerator. Line-drying can save an estimated $25 a month off your electric bill, says Project Laundry List, which offers a load of other reasons to hang your laundry out to dry.

Yet there are still plenty of places where clotheslines are banned. And your boyfriend’s building could probably be among them, if he wanted to play the heavy: New York is not one of the 20 or so states that legally protect the “right to dry,” which means landlords and community associations can, to some extent, make their own rules. The housing official I consulted also said anything that blocks fire escapes or emergency exits can be considered a concern.

But if your beau isn’t bothered by the bloomers, and they’re not getting in the way of safety, he should tell his cranky tenants to sit and spin. If they don’t like it, they can head to Scottsdale instead.

Flappily,
Umbra